Less than a year after the release of the third installment of the “After” series, I willingly purchased tickets to the premiere of the fourth movie, “After Ever Happy.” I stepped into the theater well aware that the plot would be weak, the relationship between Tessa (Josephine Langford, “Moxie”) and Hardin (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, “First Love”) would be exhausting and the film would end in yet another unexciting cliffhanger that will inevitably drag me back next year for round five.
Why am I involved in this never-ending cycle? It’s definitely not because of the films’ quality, which has proven to lack significant meaning and engaging characters in the past. But the “After” series is one of my last connections to the One Direction fandom. “After” originated as fanfiction published on Wattpad by Anna Todd. Directioners would lie awake at night on their iPod touches, scrolling vigorously to read the newest chapter. Now, we sit in theaters, reunited with the poor storyline and the very slight resemblance Fiennes Tiffin has to Harry Styles. Knowing the origin of the “After” series is enough to keep me coming back, even if it’s out of obligation.
“After Ever Happy” once again focuses on the toxic relationship between destructive bad-boy Hardin and good-girl Tessa as they navigate their post-college lives. Their lives seem to be in a never-ending downward spiral. Hardin discovers who his real father is, prompting him to burn his mother’s apartment down. Just a couple of days later, Tessa finds her father dead on her bathroom floor following an overdose. Tragedies like these are mere casualties in the “After” series.
There’s really no plot to summarize — Hardin and Tessa take a few breaks from each other that ultimately lead them back together to have more sex. If the films are so lackluster, one may wonder why the fifth film is already confirmed. I can’t speak for everyone in the theater, but by the laughter coming from all corners and the looks of the crowd (mostly girls in their early 20s), I can confidently say most people came for the same reasons as I did — the nostalgia. There’s nothing more ridiculous than knowing that fanfiction you once read in your bedroom as a 12-year-old is playing on the big screen. It’s so messy that you simply cannot look away.
The previous “After” film, “After We Fell,” had issues bringing back the actors from the previous films. Although there weren’t as many drop-offs this time around, Tessa’s mother, previously played by Selma Blair, was recast as Mira Sorvino (“Mighty Aphrodite”). It seems like every time one of these films comes out, there’s a moment in the theater where I am simply confused. It takes a second to readjust to the new actress, and it throws off the already subpar plot. The “After” series cannot seem to hold onto its talent, and that’s only a small part of the larger canvas of problems for viewers in terms of engagement.
Langford’s performance is one of the better ones, but she becomes almost unbearable to watch as Tessa, who seems to have no thoughts of her own in any of the films. I found this particularly frustrating in “After Ever Happy.” When Hardin burns his mother’s apartment down, Tessa simply acts as his getaway car. She finally drives far enough away that they can pull over. What happens next? You guessed it, more sex.
Although Hardin is almost always in the wrong, we still see Tessa as the one struggling at the end, chasing him. It’s frustrating to see Hardin’s success story and Tessa’s downfall when it seems like it should be the other way around. Tessa is reduced to nothing without Hardin, but I guess that’s what was written on Wattpad. No one would have liked to read the collapse of Harry Styles in the early 2010s. I know I wouldn’t have. Still, Tessa’s lack of independence and control seems much more real on full display in the film, regardless of the viewer’s knowledge of the original fanfiction.
I found myself getting frustrated in the theater, but I was instantly reminded by the giggles surrounding me of why I was there — not for quality, but for community. The trajectory the films have taken is so ridiculous it’s laughable, and we all know the reason the “After” series has seen any success at all: the One Direction fandom reuniting several years after the band announced their hiatus.
So when I see “To be continued…” appear on the screen after an anti-climatic ending, I’m not mad. I thank the “After” series for doing its job of bringing a community back together, even if it’s with toxic sex scenes and a weak narrative.
Daily Arts Writer Laura Millar can be reached at email@example.com.